Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence

Shelley King finds that some things stay the same in an analysis of schooldays then and now

March 26, 2009

Just how does an individual become what Jenny Holt calls "a politically literate citizen", a self-aware, autonomous participant in the nation or, indeed, the world? In Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence, Holt explores this issue for one small but influential segment of the population: those adolescent males shaped by the idea of the public school in Britain from the mid-19th century to the early years of the 20th.

She begins from the general Bakhtinian premise that individual identity is shaped by the multiple discourses that impinge upon it, but moves quickly to focus on how one specific literary subgenre, the public school story, might have moulded the political or civic identities of those readers she identifies as its target audience.

Then, having framed the question of how such reading might develop the citizen-self, Holt proceeds to examine the ways in which characters from a range of stories model specific types of civic behaviour, tracing the evolution of adolescent male civic identity from the optimistic vision of the boy as social reformer of both self and nation posited in Tom Brown's Schooldays to the boy as disaffected critic of adult culture exemplified in Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth. She concludes that "citizenship went from an active paradigm, based on the idea that the individual adolescent was training to fight for his political beliefs in the real world, to a passive model, where duty and obedience were the priorities".

The effort to shape the civic mind was also often a struggle for control of the adolescent male body, and it is unsurprising that public school literature almost invariably addresses issues of athletics and sexuality: Tom Brown's introduction to sport at Rugby on his first day at school, for example, comes initially through the pair of boys who run a sub-five-minute mile racing the coach into town and culminates in the epic football match captained by the heroic "Old Brooke".

What Holt makes clear is that the nature of school sport and the conceptualisation of the adolescent body changes radically as the century progresses, reflecting a range of movements from Muscular Christianity to Social Darwinism and National Efficiency. Tom's Victorian world of games organised by boys for their own amusement gives way to a world of athletics designed by masters to discipline the boys' bodies, whether as a means of dissipating dangerous physical energies that might otherwise find a sexual outlet or as part of a eugenics programme aimed at producing civic bodies fit to fight in Britain's wars. As Waugh describes it, sport was cultivated "in the belief that the boy who is keen on games will not wish to endanger his health, and that the boy who has played football all the afternoon and has boxed between tea and lock-up will be too tired to embark on any further adventures".

Throughout this study, the deft interweaving of material drawn from education theory, sociology, anthropology and psychology constitutes one of its key strengths, contextualising the examination of literary works that lies at the centre of Holt's discussion and opening fascinating avenues for further exploration. This book will certainly be of interest to anyone engaged with the history of children's - or perhaps more accurately young adult - literature, and to those seeking a broader understanding of Victorian culture.

However, several aspects of Holt's study also possess surprising relevance to current debates concerning ideology and education. Many of the passages excerpted from Victorian and Edwardian educational theorists remind the reader that everything old is new again. J.E.C. Welldon's comment, published in 1895, that "Learning, alas! will someday be smothered by its own children, examination, competition, the calculation and publication of results" seems eerily familiar in our own era of government demands for accountability in the classroom. S.P.B. Mais' 1937 statement that "Boys left on their own quite often acquire a passionate desire to make galvanometers out of sardine tins. We schoolmasters spoil our whole game by over-zeal and over-teaching" evokes contemporary discussions of student-centred, inquiry-based learning.

No less than the Victorians, we are engaged in a struggle for the civic energies of the next generation, whether through eco-movements or global consumerism, and I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that Holt had pushed her analysis one step further, taking a page from Philip Pullman to reflect on reading itself as a political act based not so much in the content of the text as in the way it shapes our reading practice and interpretive engagement with the world. While she admirably ranges over a broad collection of school stories, setting forth the ideological issues at stake through careful glosses derived from treatises from a variety of disciplines, Holt seems content to treat the novels less as literary works than as documentary representations of schoolboy experience designed to inculcate ideology primarily through identification with the experiences of the protagonist.

This approach is betrayed most clearly in a footnote late in the book: "It has been pointed out to me that the Eragon books by Christopher Paolini are by an adolescent, about adolescents and for adolescents, but, since they are fantasy works that offer fantasy answers to problems, they cannot really be seen as hard social criticism." For Holt, realist narratives act as the preferred key to understanding social issues, and her disqualification of fantasy from the role of "hard social criticism" signals an engagement with the text that stops short of asking how the interpretive demands of genre might also exert ideological pressures and contribute to shaping adolescent civic identity.

Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence

By Jenny Holt

Ashgate, 280pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780754656623

Published 28 December 2008

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